Ten days to go until the winter meetings, and barely a whisper from the world of major league baseball. Meanwhile, on Yawkey Way, the Red Sox continue to be so clandestine that you cannot help but wonder if they are up to anything at all.
Which is precisely how Theo Epstein likes it.
Clearly, these are transitional times in and beyond the world of professional sports. Our nation as a whole appears destined for perhaps our biggest financial crisis in 80 years. Minus the six-year, $140 million offer made by the Yankees to free-agent linchpin CC Sabathia -- Fats Domino? -- baseball's free agent market has been all but devoid of any behavior that might be termed aggressive.
In the midst of this stand the Red Sox, who have traded a backup outfielder for a reliever and effectively sealed the deal on a mid-level Japanese import. Not exactly front-page news there, even here in the international hotbed of all things baseball.
Here's something to consider: Last week, one Sox official said the club had two separate and distinct paths to choose from this offseason, one of an aggressive nature, the other of conservatism. The question was which. Earlier this month, Sox officials froze ticket prices for the first time since baseball's historic work stoppage of 1994-95, something that should tell you just how pessimistic baseball's financial doomsayers have become.
During the recent owners' meetings, commissioner Bud Selig summoned former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker to address teams on the state and possible direction of the economy. All indications are that Volcker painted a very bleak picture. Meanwhile, the free agent market continues to move along at a snail's pace, and you cannot help but wonder how much longer it will be before agents begin making accusations of collusion.
Let's focus on the Red Sox for a moment. With or without the financial crisis, even the Sox must have a saturation point. This year, while the Sox drew more than 3 million fans for the first time in their history, local television ratings were down roughly 20 percent. (By the way, at last check, the Bruins were up close to 30 percent.) There have been whispers that Sox playoff tickets were not commanding the kind of street value that they have in past years, which certainly suggests that fans are becoming complacent after winning two world titles in a four-year span.
The Red Sox are no fools. They monitor everything. Before we give the Sox too much credit for freezing ticket prices, maybe we should wonder if they are focused as much on their bottom line as they are on the plight of the working man.
How many working men do you know who wear pink hats?
As such, here's a question that might be worth asking and that previously seemed unthinkable: Is interest in this team waning? In many ways, last season began as perhaps the most stale Sox season in decades. The team was coming off a second world title in less time than it takes to earn a college degree. There were no major roster changes to speak of. The Sox who showed up for the spring of 2008 were generally the ones who went home in the fall of 2007, largely because the team has developed a good player development system that allows it to improve from within.
Here's the downside: No major plot lines, at least until Manny Ramirez started kicking up a storm and all but forced his way out of town. In some ways, the 2008 Sox became infinitely more interesting the moment Ramirez left; in others, they became considerably more boring.
Now here are the Sox, in the middle of free agent season, and they are in a most unusual position. At the moment, using the last five years as a sample size, they are the most successful organization in baseball. They also could have as much as $40 million-$60 million to spend. In between the end of 2007 and the start of 2008, Epstein cut roughly $15 million from the payroll. Since the middle of this year, Epstein has cut roughly an additional $40 million in the contracts of Ramirez, Curt Schilling, Jason Varitek, Paul Byrd, Mark Kotsay, and Mike Timlin, among others. Depending on where the elect to establish their budget for 2009, they could spend a little, a lot, or a ton.
That speaks of good planning. The Sox have talented and inexpensive young players that they could trade or keep. They could also settle somewhere in between. What the Sox have to decide now is the better course of action during a difficult financial time (we're still not sure if that applies to them, but let's go with it) when interest in the club appears to be ebbing.
Several years ago, during the winter of 2000-01, the Sox signed Ramirez to an eight-year, $160 million contract after failing to lure pitcher Mike Mussina, who went to the New York Yankees. As much as Ramirez improved the Boston lineup, the decision was made for business reasons as much as anything else. At the time, the Sox were preparing to sell the club, NESN was on the verge of becoming part of the base package on cable television subscriptions, and the Sox were looking to add a superstar around which to build their marketing efforts.
By the start of this season, the Sox had won a pair of World Series, NESN's value had increased exponentially -- at least based on some estimates -- and Fenway was the home of the longest sellout streak in the history of major league baseball.
Now? Admittedly, the Sox may be more shrewd to take the conservative route, to weather the storm for the coming years. If and when the market recovers, the club then will be well positioned to spend on the open market. (This was the Bruins strategy during the historic NHL work-stoppage.) The alternative is to spend big now if the right position presents itself -- Mark Teixeira, anyone? -- and infuse the organization with a new superstar, someone around whom the Sox can build their marketing efforts for years to come.
I'd spend the money.
But then, it's not mine to spend.
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